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Young girls watch a football game being played outside of their school during breaktime at a center run by Dr. Hawa Abdi, in Somalia, on September 25, 2013.
Flickr/United Nations Photo
Health

The World Mourns Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Somali Doctor Who Changed 90,000 Lives


Why Global Citizens Should Care 
The world needs compassionate leaders in every area, from health care to education to human rights. Dr. Hawa Abdi's extraordinary dedication to supporting and caring for others exemplifies this leadership, and her work must be recognised, celebrated, and continued. Join the movement by taking action here to help achieve the UN's Global Goals and end extreme poverty and its systemic causes.

The renowned human rights activist, doctor, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Hawa Abdi died on Wednesday in Mogadishu, Somalia, at age 73. 

Affectionately known as Mama Hawa, Abdi’s life was filled with extraordinary generosity, care, and compassion, as she worked to improve the lives of women, children, and displaced people in Somalia. 

Following her death, Somalia’s Ministry of Women and Human Rights Development described her as a "fierce advocate for the rights of Somali women and children," and said she "dedicated her life to providing them with free health care."

"Her legacy will live on through the lives she changed," it added.

President of Somalia Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed also paid tribute to Adbi, saying she "has a golden place in the history of our nation." 

Abdi was born in 1947, in Mogadishu. Her father reportedly worked in the city’s port, and when she was still young, her mother died from complications in childbirth.

"I used to think and dream that one day I, myself, could save lives so no other mother would die helpless," Abdi told the New York Times in 2011.

After winning a scholarship to study medicine in Ukraine, Abdi became one of Somalia’s first gynaecologists — before going on to complete a law degree, and work for government hospitals in Somalia.

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But in 1983, Adbi founded the one-room health care clinic that would grow over the years into a refuge for thousands of displaced people and refugees, using her own money and donations to her foundation. 

She started the clinic, on the grounds of her family home close to Mogadishu, to serve women and children who would otherwise have had no access to health care. 

But in the early 1990s, Somalia fell into a civil war, which wreaked havoc in the country, and caused devastation to the country’s economy and infrastructure.

As the civil war intensified, what had begun as a one-room health centre began hosting those whose lives had been uprooted by the conflict. Soon, tens of thousands of people were living in the settlement, predominantly women and children. 

It became a settlement housing a hospital, a school, and a refugee camp for approximately 90,000 people made homeless by the war. 

In her memoirKeeping Hope Alive: How One Somali Woman Changed 90,000 Lives, Abdi refers to a particular incident in 2010, when Islamist militants laid siege to the settlement and tried to force her — being a woman — to hand over management of the property to them. 

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"I refused to back down," she writes. "'So they’ll shoot me!' I told the elders. 'At least I will die with dignity.'"

The militants eventually withdrew, according to the New York Times, after pressure from locals and rights groups — and the militants even reportedly agreed to write her an apology letter. 

As well as training dozens of doctors and nurses, Abdi also established literacy classes for women, and an agricultural project to support former herders in farming their own food. 

In tribute to her extraordinary dedication to caring for others, she received numerous awards and titles of recognition, including her nomination in 2012 for the Nobel Peace Prize, and winning BET’s Social Humanitarian Award in the same year. 

She also received an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 2017, alongside Mark Zuckerberg, Judi Dench, and James Earl Jones; and was named among Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, alongside her daughters Amina Mohamed and Deqo Mohamed, both of whom are doctors and working in the refugee camp established by their mother.